Sometimes you just gotta go.
Born and raised in New England, I was a Fenway Park madboy and madman since May of 1963, when I sat with my dad and brother and watched the Maris and Mantle Yanks outlast the Red Sox in extra innings. Now it was the summer of ’79, and I suddenly felt a new baseball hole in my life that only Wrigley Field could fill.
At 24 years old, I was the Arts Editor of an ambitious “alternative weekly” called the Vanguard Press in Burlington, Vt. Two hours away from Stade Olympique in Montreal, my buddies and I were adopted diehard Expos fans, or “Exponents” as some called us. While I enjoyed rooting for Carter, Valentine, Dawson, Rogers, Cromartie, and their ex-“Impossible Dream” skipper Dick Williams, the two-hour jaunts over the border just past Goose Bay and across Indiana-like Quebec farmland were more notable for our post-game, Molson-fueled romps down St. Catherine Street than any acute baseball memories in that massive, half-open concrete bidet off the Pie IX Metro station. Olympic Stadium had zero charm, even less history, and you could barely see the ball when it was hit. As much as I liked the Expos, I thirsted to see them play in a real outdoor ballpark.
The furthest west I had been, baseball or otherwise, was Toronto, for a late ’77 Red Sox twinbill at gull-infested Exhibition Stadium, another field with cartoony Astroturf and no baseball character. Two summers later, there I was sitting behind my IBM Selectric in our tobacco-scented Vanguard Press office, staring at a wall calendar with VACATION? magic-markered through the first week of July. Les Expos had a six-game lead on the Pirates in the NL East. I checked baseball schedules, saw they had four weekday games lined up at Wrigley Field, discovered that US Air had direct flights to O’Hare from Burlington, and the quest was booked.
Of course, I’d never been to Chicago, knew not one blessed soul there, and as I believe I mentioned, was 24 years young. No matter. As it has always been, baseball was my place of refuge. If I could somehow get myself to the Friendly Confines, everything would sort itself out.
I stuffed a wad of T-shirts, socks, shorts, and underwear into a fat gym bag and got on the Monday morning plane. There was no cell phone or Internet to guide me anywhere, so I did what everyone did in yesteryear and asked people at O’Hare for directions to Wrigley. By clogged train and packed bus I miraculously made it to the park a half hour before first pitch.
The baseball bazaar on jersey and Ipswich Streets outside Fenway had always sharpened my senses, but Wrigleyville was an absolute knockout. From the rows of sports bars to the stoops to the rooftops, this wasn’t just a handful of street vendors and a couple of souvenir stores, but an entire neighborhood happily drowning in baseball. Hell, I could even walk up to the box office and buy a great box seat near the Cubs dugout, something unthinkable in Boston, where entire seasons of home games were gone with the sold-out wind before February’s final blizzard.
Where Fenway was dubbed a “park,” it looked more like a factory on the outside and a gift box of greenery wedged into a steep-sided packing crate on the inside. Wrigley was called a “field” but looked and felt like a real park. I’d seen the famous ivy a bunch of times on television, but sitting to the left of home plate with the leafy green outfield walls wrapped around my field of vision, I couldn’t imagine any other baseball yard in the world feeling more connected to nature.
Less than two months before my visit, the Phillies had outlasted the home team there 23-22, an acid trip of a game filled with eleven home runs, five combined by Mike Schmidt and Dave King Kong Kingman, the local legend and statistical godfather of Adam Dunn. Naturally, I was rooting for a similar show, but there was no Waveland-bound zephyr in this game to make it possible. The only wind was emanating from Steve Rogers’ arm, as he threw a complete game, eight-hit shutout to stifle the Cubs 5-0. The local fans weren’t having much fun, but the day was glorious, I basked in my sunny seat with cries of “Old Style here!” slicing through my ears, and even witnessed a classic Wrigley moment when a Gary Carter fly ball became an infield double when Ivan DeJesus lost the ball in the sun.
As the game wound down, though, I became anxious. My travel bag was still between my sneakers. Where in hell was I going to sleep? An arts editor wage was suitable enough for low-budget Vermont, but Chicago could be a far different story. I had bought myself a cheap AAA Chicago travel guide, but there was still a wobbly unknown in the air. Maybe the Cubs would tie the game, it would go countless extra innings, and I’d never have to leave the park!
Oh, right. No lights yet.
So I filed onto the El train after the game and headed downtown into the unknown metropolis. Located a Motel 6 pretty close to the Loop and got a room for about $45 that was a cross between a college dorm and penitentiary cell. It would do fine.
The Wrigley bleachers looked like fun, but getting into them was too much of a chore, so on Tuesday I tried out the upper deck. Amazing views of downtown, the surrounding rooftops, the same fluttering ivy leaves, and the home nine came back late after an Ellis Valentine bleacher bomb in the 4th made it 2-0 Montreal. Ross Grimsley, the most ‘70s looking pitcher ever, got tired, Elias Sosa relieved and gave up two tying hits. In the 9th, a walk and an error forced Williams to load the bases, and Bill Buckner singled in the winner to send the Wrigleyites home happy. I had a few beers at the raucous Cubby Bear Lounge, took in a great blues show later at Kingston Mines, and prepared for July 4th.
Hot and sticky and Spaceman Bill Lee was facing Bill Caudill. Warren Cromartie homered into the opposite bleachers to start the game, and the ball was chucked right back on the field—something I’d never seen before. Spaceman pretty much shut the Cubs down from there, and the 2-1 Montreal win was over in two hours and ten minutes. I squeezed into a ballpark urinal line afterward, about ten guys deep. “If there’s any Expos fans in here, don’t let them piss!” yelled one participant.
I can’t even remember the name of the downtown restaurant, but that night I enjoyed the freshest burger I’d ever eaten. Then I wanted to see fireworks, so walked a good number of blocks to Grant Park. A sudden, violent thunderstorm ended the show early, and I had to make a drenching run back to the Motel 6. My cash and dry clothes were running out, but I did have enough coin for the last game on Thursday before hightailing it back to O’Hare.
For the finale I sat in shade in the first base grandstand. Reuschel and Sutter held off Scott Sanderson 3-1, but the highlight was a ball that Dawson tomahawked directly at my face late in the game. I froze, I ducked, and the ball banged off the seat in front of me and into some ready hands. If I could pick my way to leave this earth, I guess getting nailed by a screaming Andre Dawson foul ball at Wrigley Field may have been one choice.
The series was an even split. King Kong Kingman drew the biggest Wrigley cheers, but went a homerless 3-for-14 in the four games. The Expos would go on to heartbreakingly lose the NL East on the final weekend to the eventual champion Pirates. The Cubs, three games over .500 when the series began, would quietly end up in 4th, two games under .500 but 17 in front of the awful, last-place Mets.
And a young Vermont journalist would have a stuffed travel bag of Windy City memories to sift through forever.
* * * * *
JEFF POLMAN writes fictionalized baseball replay blogs, his current endeavor being Mystery Ball ’58. His first such blog, “1924 and You Are There!” has been published as a book by Grassy Gutter Press and is available on Amazon.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house; photos courtesy of Jeff Polman.